The slavery reparations movement hit a watershed moment Wednesday with the release of an exhaustive report detailing California’s role in perpetuating discrimination against African Americans, a major step toward educating the public and setting the stage for an official government apology and case for financial restitution.
The 500-page document lays out the harm suffered by descendants of enslaved people even today, long after slavery was abolished in the 19th century, through discriminatory laws and actions in all facets of life, from housing and education to employment and the legal system.
Longtime reparations advocate Justin Hansford, who is a law professor at Howard University and director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center in Washington called the moment exciting and monumental.
“To have an official detail of these histories coming from the state is important,” he said. “I know a lot of people say we don’t need to keep doing studies, but the reality is until it comes from some source that people think is objective, then it is going to be harder to convince everybody of some of the inequalities described.”
The report comes at a time when school boards and states across the U.S. are banning books or restricting what can be taught in classrooms, with parents and lawmakers largely opposed to topics of sexuality, gender identity or race. State lawmakers have tried to bar schools from teaching the “1619 Project,” a New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning report that reframes American history with enslaved people at its heart.
California is headed in the opposite direction, said Adam Laats, a historian at Binghamton University who called the document remarkable in its unflinching account, including detailing how police officers and district attorneys in the Los Angeles of a century ago were members of or had ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
“Who children should learn are the main actors in the story of us as a nation has always been a real lightning rod,” he said.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation creating the two-year task force in 2020, making California the only state to move ahead with a study and plan. Cities and universities have taken up the cause, with the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois, becoming the first city to make reparations available to Black residents last year.
On Wednesday, Newsom issued a statement praising California for leading the country on a long overdue discussion of racial justice and equity. The state’s Attorney General Rob Bonta, whose office is assisting the task force, said, “California was not a passive actor in perpetuating these harms.”
A similar effort is underway to delve into what Newsom has called California’s dark history of violence, mistreatment and neglect of Native Americans. The report by the Truth and Healing Council, due in 2025, could include recommendations for reparations. Many tribes across the country have sought to acquire their ancestral land and co-manage public land.
The African American reparations task force, which began meeting in June 2021, will release a comprehensive reparations plan next year. The committee voted in March to limit reparations to the descendants of African Americans living in the U.S. in the 19th century, overruling advocates who wanted to expand compensation to all Black people in the U.S.
“Four hundred years of discrimination has resulted in an enormous and persistent wealth gap between Black and white Americans,” said the report by the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.
“These effects of slavery continue to be embedded in American society today and have never been sufficiently remedied. The governments of the United States and the State of California have never apologized to or compensated African Americans for these harms.”
California is home to the fifth-largest Black population in the U.S., after Texas, Florida, Georgia and New York, the report said. An estimated 2.8 million Black people live in California, although it is unclear how many are eligible for direct compensation.
African Americans make up less than 6% of California’s population yet they are overrepresented in jails, youth detention centers and prisons. About 28% of people imprisoned in California are Black and in 2019, 36% of minors ordered into state juvenile detention facilities were African Americans, according to the report.
Black Californians earn less and and are more likely to be poor than white residents. In 2018, Black residents earned on average just under $54,000 compared to $87,000 for white Californians.
“We don’t own homes and if you look at why there’s such a huge disparity between African Americans and white Americans and our ability to hold onto and sustain wealth, it’s because we don’t own homes,” said Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a task force member.
The task force’s sweeping initial recommendations include prison system reforms. Inmates should not be forced to work and if they do, they must be paid fair market wages. Inmates should also be allowed to vote and people with felony convictions should serve on juries.
The group recommends creating a state-subsidized mortgage program to guarantee low rates for qualifying African American applicants, free health care, free tuition to California colleges and universities and scholarships to African American high school graduates to cover four years of undergraduate education.
The committee also calls for a Cabinet-level secretary position to oversee an African American Affairs agency with branches for civic engagement, education, social services, cultural affairs and legal affairs. It would help people research and document their lineage to a 19th-century ancestor so they could qualify for financial restitution.
People opposed to paying reparations argue that California did not have plantations or Jim Crow era laws as in the South.
But the interim report spells out how California, despite being “free,” perpetuated harms that have compounded over generations.
It noted that Missouri native Basil Campbell was purchased for $1,200 and forced to move to California’s Yolo County in 1854, leaving behind his wife and two sons. Campbell eventually paid off his purchase price, married and became a landowner. But when his sons petitioned for a portion of his estate after his death, a California judge ruled that marriage between two enslaved people “is not a marriage relation.”
More recently, it said, the home of Paul Austin and Tenisha Tate-Austin was assessed at a much lower price because it was located in a primarily Black part of upscale Marin County, where African Americans were forced to live starting in World War II.
The report should offer other cities and states — and ultimately the federal government — a blueprint for seeking reparations, members said. Over the next year, the task force will take on the difficult task of crafting an apology and creating a reparations plan to compensate for and stop the harm.
“The big question is: What are they going to do with it? The danger here is that everyone reads it and nods their heads and waits on the task force to initiate the response,” said Hansford, the law professor. “We need to have universities, local governments, businesses and others working together to do their part to address … the recommendations offered in the report.”